Russian for beginners

Whenever I told anyone that I was learning Russian, I was often met with the question “Why?” What on earth has possessed you to learn that Slavic language with its aggressive tones and strange alphabet? What interests you so much about that raw, bitingly cold vast land mass ruled by a dictator?
“It’s interesting”, I’ll reply. “I’ve always been intrigued by Russian history”. As a child I would pour over the pages dedicated to Russia in my encyclopedia, enchanted by the rosy cheeked locals smiling beneath their woolen caps in the icy, pristine sunlight. The colourful babushka dolls, the onion shaped domes atop the Russian orthodox churches, Eskimos on the tundra- to me it seemed like a different world, like somewhere caught in a time trap.

Of course Russia is nowhere near as idyllic as what you see in its snow-capped postcard pictures. In time I would learn about its corrupt society and eventful history, overshadowed by years of invasion, hardship and most recently, the malaise of communism. Westerners too often perceive the Russians as being cold and unfriendly and instantly disregard it as a holiday destination, favouring safe, sandy options like France and Spain. In my own experience however, many of the Russians I’ve met have been friendly, chatty and just as keen to share their own culture as they have been to find out about mine. Western tourists are used to being fought over by the likes of Spanish waiters who stand on the palm tree lined promenades of English resorts, brandishing English menus to entice hungry tourists. They enjoy the security of tour reps who mollycoddle them and ensure them that they’re just a phone call away as well as the ubiquitous promise that “we speak your language”.
Having a really interesting experience on holiday usually involves leaving your comfort zone however. And probably learning the basics of another language.

холодно- Siberian Winter
Nenets people of the Tundra


I’d always wanted to learn Russian. The Cyrillic alphabet, familiar but so different, had long appealed to me. The sound of Russian with its characteristic fast paced Slavic rhythm, punctuated by fricative and nasal consonants, stood out to me in how unusual it sounded. I’d been told before that Russian is to Eastern Europe as English is to Western Europe, acting as the common language that everyone knows a little bit of. I also knew that if I ever wanted to travel to Russia I would have to learn some Russian as the majority of the locals, particularly older generations or those living in more rural areas, have little or no English. Unfortunately, I’d never had the time to focus on actually learning the language with school, commitments and college life always getting in the way. So when the opportunity arose to take a beginner’s class in Russian during my first semester in the University of Leipzig, I jumped at the chance and bought the required textbooks with the enthusiastic fervour of a primary school child picking out a shiny new school bag.

Our teacher began the course by teaching us the Cyrillic alphabet, as expected. I was surprised by how straightforward this actually was. While there were confusing letters such as H (pronounced like an ‘n’) and P (pronounced like ‘r’) some letters were pronounced exactly how they are in the Latin alphabet, while others just required memorization. I got great satisfaction in being able to identify names of popular Russian figures and pronounce nouns in the first few weeks. However, my quiet sense of triumph was about to come to a thundering halt. Our teacher dived into the more complicated grammar structures straight away, presenting us with a seemingly endless list of cases, genders and the rules that governed them. Russian is great for the more logically minded out there as the grammar follows a set list of rules. While the rules may initially seem infinite there is solace in the fact that there are very few exceptions to learn. If you are willing to sit down and learn all of them, you will have established a concrete foundation of the language. In this sense it reminded me of German.

russian cases
A grammar chart explaining Russian cases and genders- not for the faint hearted

However, unlike German where a case is denoted by the noun’s definite article, Russian has no definite articles. Niet. I did a silent jump for joy when our teacher told us this, thinking about the many ways you can say ‘the’ in German (sixteen!) But I would soon discover that the case in question was actually denoted by the end of the word changing. For example, the preposition ‘с’, meaning ‘with’, takes the instrumental case. Let’s take the simple example of ‘coffee with milk’. (Coffee- кафе, milk- молоко) молоко is a masculine word and in the instrumental, the masculine ending is -ом. Therefore, ‘coffee with milk’ is ‘кофе с молоком’. While six cases and three genders with various rules governing their usage seems a lot, if you’re the mathsy type of person who likes solving puzzles then you will probably enjoy constructing Russian sentences.

After the third week of Russian class began we still hadn’t covered the verb ‘to be’, which I thought strange. Being a native English speaker and a student of Germanic and Romance languages, I was accustomed to having to learn this fundamental verb at the very beginning. The first two weeks of class came and went without a mere mention of this verb. Bewildered, I made my own enquiries to find out that the verb ‘to be’ doesn’t exist in the present tense so to speak. Nouns carry far more semantic meaning than verbs in a sentence. If you wanted to say a sentence such as “I am a student” you would simply say “I student”-  Я студент.  Adjectives on their own without a subject implies the English phrase “it is”. For example, “it is cold” can be stated simply as <холодно>.  While initially confusing, it is actually very straightforward not having to worry about conjugating verbs on top of all the other rules one must mentally retain as a student of Russian.

If I’m completely honest, I probably didn’t spend as much time studying the rules as I could have, being as distracted by the Erasmus lifestyle as I was, with the various European trips and cold German beer that accompanied it. But I did make an effort to attend most of my classes and I went over the grammar rules and vocab fairly often. I even started watching cartoons in Russian and began following Russian vloggers on Instagram. As my winter exam grew closer, I began to take study a lot more seriously, desperately wanting to pass. My anxieties were compounded by the fact that one needed to get 60% to be able to pass it. Thankfully, I did. This was probably down to my hard work during the course of the semester- or else the questionable amount of caffeine and fructose fuelled cramming I did in the days beforehand, that could have potentially induced the onset of diabetes, but surprisingly didn’t.

white nights
A nocturnal scene captured during one of the so-called ‘White Nights’ in St. Petersburg

Russia has provided me with lots of destinations on my bucket list which remain unticked. Ideally, I would travel there around the end of May to be in St. Petersburg during their “White Nights”- an ephemeral period when the city is bathed in glowing brightness. Due to the St. Petersburg’s northern latitude, the sun barely sets at all during the day, allowing locals and tourists alike to wander through the streets or canoe along the canals in broad daylight at whatever ungodly hour takes their fancy. The Trans Siberian Express is high on that list of course. The plan would be to get off in Moscow, take in the colourful sights in Red Square and see St. Basil’s Cathedral as well as the Kremlin in all its foreboding glory. Then I’d make my way through Siberia and get off at places that look interesting, making sure I had my Russian dictionary close at hand. And from there I’d probably go to China. Just don’t expect me to learn Chinese.


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